With the Oklahoma City Thunder's first game of the season mere hours away, we do like we do around these parts and check in with the opposition to see how they're feeling about the new season. For the Utah Jazz, SLC Dunk is the place to be, and Amar is the man who makes it happen.
If you would like to see his questions for me and my responses, GO HERE.
Here are my questions for Amar, followed by his responses:
1) Give us Thunder fans a quick rundown on the changes that Utah has undergone this season.
The Jazz effectively "fired" their starters from last year, and will be starting their bench this year. Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams, DeMarre Carroll, Earl Watson, and Raja Bell (who?) all were shown the door in free agency. Randy Foye and Kevin Murphy were traded away. Discounting Bell and Murphy, the remaining 6 players accounted for 290 starts last season, or more than 48 starts each. Sadly, for most fans, the greatest loss this off-season will be felt in the loss of Assistant coach Jeff Hornacek. Hornacek was well liked by most of the young players (precisely the players the General Manager Dennis Lindsey has kept), and took time beyond his position as Assistant Coach to also be a player development coach. He's helped Derrick Favors on his free throws. Helped Alec Burks on his shoot. Helped Enes Kanter identify help defenders on post ups. And more than anything, helped Gordon Hayward become an all-around better player. Previously, when Hayward would be having a good game he'd point to Jeff on the bench and smile - not Tyrone Corbin. Jeff is gone, and the Jazz young core no longer has their "cool, successful uncle around."
They do have a very new team that is not ready to compete this year. They moved up in the draft to pick NCAA phenom Trey Burke, who is currently injured. There are two other rookies on board in Rudy Gobert and Ian Clark. To balance all the youth the Jazz brought back the roster ballast of Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson, and the still injured Brandon Rush. Jefferson will be starting while Marvin Williams (who did not exercise his early contract termination option) is injured.
The 1-7 preseason mark showed a huge whole at point guard, career third stringer John Lucas III was slated to start the NBA season, but the Jazz recently came to terms to bring back Jamaal Tinsley for a third year in Salt Lake. That's the kind of off-season the team has had - trade up for a hot shot rookie PG who gets injured, then the biggest free agency signing is bringing back Tinsley.
2) You guys barely missed the playoffs last season. Do you feel like you're a step closer or a step farther away, and if the latter, what do you need to get back to contention?
The Jazz are no longer aiming for mediocrity. Making the playoffs on the last day of the season, only to get demolished by the #1 seed doesn't satisfy this fanbase that is used to the good old days of going to the Western Conference Finals five times in seven years. Resigning our starters from the last season may have made us more "competitive" for a playoff spot, but when the goal is to win the title, showing Al Jefferson "the money" is doing it wrong. Utah is farther away from winning regular season games this year, but I feel like we're closer to being a competitive franchise once again now that we've shed flawed mercenaries for a young group that looks like they can actually play defense.
The GM Lindsey laments that over the last few seasons (post Deron Williams) the Jazz "skipped a step" by making the playoffs that one year. He has vowed that the team is not going to do that, and instead, build organically from the draft - not unlike the Thunder did (but he didn't say "do what OKC did"). It worked for you guys, and while you took your lumps, getting your players the experience they needed to become leaders is all that it took to go from the lotto to the West's elite. That's what the Jazz will be focused on this year.
3) What are 2-3 story lines for your team that you will be keeping your eye on as the season unfolds?
The biggest one now that Gordon Hayward has a few hours left to announce that he has accepted the Jazz contract extension (and likely is Not going to accept it) will be how he performs this season leading up to restricted free agency. That should have been a non-story if the Jazz gave his people what he wanted, but at least amongst fans it seems like the Jazz tried to low ball him (after over-spending on former Jazz small forwards Andrei Kirilenko and Matt Harpring - people forget about Harp, but he was so over paid that the Jazz had to part with Eric Maynor in a salary dump years ago, but I'm sure you guys remember that).
Beyond that the big issue will be how the young guys perform. Some Jazz fans felt like they should have kept the old guys from last year, but it appears the Jazz themselves didn't think they should. If players like Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter struggle early the decision to part with a very veteran and capable front court may look like a big mistake.
Many thanks to Amar, and be sure to check out SLC Dunk to get proper perspective on the Utah Jazz this season.